So what kind of a year was it for moving pictures? It was the kind of year where my roundup of the best offerings is 25 movies long, in addition to two supplementary lists of ten. Oh, and then I came up with 11 more runners-up. And then 35 honorable mentions. That makes for a grand total of 91 movies — an average of 1.75 per week – that were worth remembering and recommending at year’s end. They ranged from period dramas to indie comedies, from post-apocalyptic action to brainy sci-fi, from anything-goes narratives to insightful documentaries. These were the best films of a very, very good year.
25. White God
This brutal, brilliant effort from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó plays like a synthesis of Disney’s The Incredible Journey and Fuller’s similarly titled White Dog. Mundruczó juggles so many seemingly disparate tones with such offhand skill and boisterous power, you’re not sure how he’s pulling it off; in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the scary and tense “when animals attack” stuff couldn’t possibly support the earned emotion of its remarkable conclusion.
24. The Seven Five
Tiller Russell’s documentary examination of the dirtiest precinct in the history of the NYPD (and, y’know, that’s saying something) is a riveting, scrappy affair, aping the narrative arc and itchy rhythms of a Scorsese picture – it intoxicates the viewer with the sheer seductiveness of breaking the law, and then sucker-punches us with the consequences. There’s furious energy and bravura craftsmanship on display here; it was quite possibly the best documentary this year that you didn’t hear a damn thing about.
23. The Hunting Ground
Kirby Dick’s documentary exposé of the campus rape epidemic has proven unsurprisingly controversial, with rounds of backlash, takedowns (from predictable sources), and responses occupying plenty of Internet bandwidth. Lost in much of the conversation about the reporting – which commentators across the spectrum have pretty much comported to their preexisting agendas – is consideration of the film as a film. And it’s a scorcher, a fierce analysis of a horrifyingly commonplace crime, the wildly ineffective methods that are failing to combat it, and the inspiring women who are fighting back.
22. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Biographical documentaries are proving one of the most durable (and lucrative) subsets of nonfiction filmmaking, and while some are barely more insightful or disruptive than your average episode of A&E’s Biography, a handful of this year’s crop have proven particularly powerful, thanks in no small part to newly unearthed archival materials that lend a personal narrative beyond the usual parade of talking heads. First out of the gate was Brett Morgen’s look at the Nirvana frontman, a figure canonized and bronzed so long ago, there seemed precious little left to say about him. But Morgen’s uncommonly first-person approach, actualized via private recordings, journals, and artworks, made Cobain breathe anew: a confused, scared, sensitive kid, trying to make sense of the insanity both outside himself and within.
21. Clouds of Sils Maria
Hollywood loves telling stories about itself, and the previous winter and spring were lousy with them: Maps to the Stars, Top Five, the Oscar-winning Birdman. But it took an outsider to tell the most keenly observed tale of acting, stardom, and aging. Olivier Assayas’ drama plays out, in its best scenes, as a two-hander, with Juliette Binoche’s movie queen and Kristen Stewart’s sharp assistant trading barbs, insights, tension, and, in some ways, identities. It looks and sounds like artsy navel-gazing, but Assayas is a more playful filmmaker than that, and the tricks he’s playing with identity and persona keep his film tart and pithy.
20. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino is a decidedly sui generis filmmaker, and his latest is, as per usual, wildly unpredictable, brutally violent, darkly funny, endlessly quotable, and in love with the sound of its own voice. It’s a far-out Western with more on its mind than horseplay, and a whodunit that leads up to far more than a big reveal. Robert Richardson’s snow-capped 70mm expanses are wow-inducing, but (as with Reservoir Dogs), Tarantino’s primary objective is to put his characters into a confined space and squeeze it like a vice, until their prejudices, ignorance, and brutality explode all over the walls (sometimes literally). “Not for everyone,” I’ve heard; what movie worth its salt is?
19. Son of Saul
László Nemes’ harrowing story of a day in the life of a Hungarian Jew forced to work in a concentration camp has provoked some of the most divisive responses in recent memory, from raves and a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes to accusations of reducing the Holocaust to a first-person shooter video game. That criticism is born out of the picture’s aesthetic gamble of keeping the camera with its protagonist at all times, on his face or over his shoulder, and while the concern is understandable, the gambit plays for this viewer; no film (less than Shoah-length, at least) can properly contemplate the full horror of this context, so Nemes claustrophobically concentrates on the psychological wreckage of one cog in its wheel. The effect is devastating and unforgettable, a waking nightmare that’s all too real.
It’s a seemingly slight movie, running a scant 79 minutes, set in a single day, all conversation and car travel. But Paul Weitz’s delicate comedy/drama is rich and textured, focusing on a complicated woman (Lily Tomlin, perfection), her granddaughter, and the people – most of them also women – they encounter in their efforts to put together a few bucks for the younger woman’s abortion. Its matter-of-fact approach to that procedure is startling enough; as their journey through Tomlin’s mental Rolodex becomes a trip through her past, writer/director Weisz and star Tomlin end up creating one of the most complicated and fascinating protagonists, of any gender, in recent memory.
17. Mistress America
Screwball comedy is harder than it looks, as you can deduce from how few of them actually get made anymore. Yet the second screenwriting collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig bore this seemingly effortless delight, a cheery, snappy jaunt through the haunts of midtown Manhattan and the model-looking homes of suburban Connecticut, has a wisecracking spirit and spiky energy missing from most mainstream comedies. Gerwig creates the kind of enviable free spirit that movies too often take at face value, and digs out the complexities the character’s taken quite visible pains to conceal.
16. Listen to Me Marlon
Like, it seems, most things, Marlon Brando came about his enigmatic nature sideways; he wasn’t the taciturn, reticent type, but someone who could talk and talk without saying anything (his autobiography runs over 500 pages and reveals next to nothing). So the shock of Stevan Riley’s documentary portrait is its unabashed candor; drawn from hours of audio recordings from Brando’s private archives, it finds the iconic actor telling his own story, conveying his own methods, rewriting his own history. The results are extraordinary, an intoxicating celebration of an enduring American artist.
Emily Blunt’s FBI agent joins an anti-drug task force, thinks she knows the score, and quickly discovers how wrong she’s always been. Director Denis Villenueve and his skilled collaborators craft her journey like a Final Girl in a slasher movie, discovering new villains and horrors around every corner and within every shadow; Benicio Del Toro is moral ambiguity made flesh. Tough, harrowing, visceral filmmaking.
The further you get from Ryan Coogler’s boxing drama, the more of a miracle it seems: dusting off the long (and thankfully) dormant Rocky franchise, Coogler and his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan recaptured the emotional heft and underdog spirit of the original entries. But they coupled that nostalgic reanimation with a welcome sense of vitality and urgency; its politics and social concerns may not be as explicit as Fruitvale’s, but they’re there, and they’re welcome. Coogler’s direction is both flashy (the already deified first pro bout) and restrained (watch how he steadfastly refuses to get in too close in that hospital scene), and it probably took a fan of his magnitude to finally write a role this good for Stallone.
This gripping documentary tells a story so juicy you’d think it was historical fiction, of a band of anti-Vietnam War protestors who broke into an FBI field office, stole all the files, and discovered the details of the agency’s illegal surveillance operations against a whole host of “agitators” like themselves. Director Johanna Hamilton uses new interviews with the participants and snazzy reenactments to work up a bravura hybrid of heist picture and timely political polemic.
12. The Look of Silence
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest is less a follow-up to his bracing Act of Killing then a reflection of it, a parallel deconstruction of the 1965 Indonesian genocide as seen through the eyes (often quite literally) of the survivor rather than the perpetrators. Yet the way those men see these events remains the focal point – the ways in which they make excuses, shrink away, or puff up to make threats are telling – particularly as they keep pressing the talking point that “the past is past.” In these two remarkable films, we are reminded that in stories of injustice, there is no such thing as “past.”
11. Slow West
With so much familiarity emanating from even such ostensible refuges as international cinema and independent screens, it’s downright delightful to discover a picture as rhythmically sprung and narratively slippery as this one – particularly when it’s grounded in such well-worn territory as the American West. Yet British filmmaker John Maclean brings his own sensibilities and eccentricities to this sharp-eyed oater, zigging when you think he’ll zag, approaching the norms of the genre with deadpan humor and an eye for unexpected discoveries.
10. Ex Machina
I’ve got nothing but love for The Force Awakens, but it’s Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson’s second-best sci-fi flick of 2015. The best was this sleek, haunting, endlessly inventive debut feature – yes, I know, I don’t know how either – from Alex Garland, whose screenplay for Sunshine now seems like foreshadowing of greatness to come. Both films represent the too-rare phenomenon of science fiction that’s less about lasers than ideas, with a trio of smashing actors (by the aforementioned pair and the unstoppable Alicia Vikander) and their nuanced characterizations creating actual tension and suspense before the nail-biter climax.
One of the few films I was able to go in to totally cold this year, to my ultimate benefit; the conventions of the kidnapping drama are so well established that when director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donahue’s clever structure turns them upside down about halfway through, the resultant drift into uncharted waters is exhilarating. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are stunningly good, every modest gesture and loaded line reading conveying both their ordeal and their connection, and when they arrive, the catharses are both exhausting and earned.
Two vital, vibrant films this year plumbed, with sensitivity and insight, the intricacies of relationships between young women; obviously, neither of them were made within our borders. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang dramatized the struggles of a group of sisters in a society obsessed with “purity” and “reputation”; Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood followed a young woman into a gang of troublemakers who provide her with the warmth and strength that seem perpetually out of her reach. Both are powerful examinations of the ties that bind women of similar age and disposition, and the forces that can snap those bonds; neither is the last word on this fertile topic.
7. Steve Jobs
It was easy to approach this one expecting the worst – after all, it was chronic mansplainer and technology Eeyore Aaron Sorkin taking on the life of the divisive Apple co-founder. But damnit, when Sorkin’s on, he’s on; his witty, forceful, searing screenplay used an ingenious structure and his signature, intoxicating way with words to put a new spin on a not-exactly-under-chronicled life. Director Danny Boyle’s direction is dazzling yet unobtrusive, keeping the tempo up and the temperature high, and there’s not a weak link in its ace ensemble.
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion animation comedy/drama is a 90-minute leap of faith, a film that might seem frowzy and directionless until the trick becomes clear, after which it refocuses into some kind of sustained magic trick. Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in her second great performance in a single year (alongside The Hateful Eight), after literally decades of Hollywood not knowing what the hell to do with her; Kaufman’s screenplay, as per usual, is attuned to the everyday heartbreaks of the average life with an accuracy that’s borderline scary.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s action masterpiece did the impossible: it made us believe in big-budget franchise filmmaking again, by reminding us that a) such films, placed in the hands of people with an actual grasp of film craft, can amaze and astonish (the amount of praise it’s received for merely understanding the basics of screen geography and editing rhythm underscores the sorry state 20 years of Michael Bay movies has left us in), and b) there’s plenty of room in the big show for directorial eccentricities and oddities. Because, seriously, how many movies could get away with that fire-shooting guitarist, much less while topping every critics’ poll in sight?
4. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Taken merely as storytelling, Marielle Heller’s seriocomic drama is still a stunner – rambunctious, raw, giddy, wrenching, and marvelous, with Bel Powley staggeringly good as a young woman discovering both the power and danger of her sexuality, Alexander Skarsgård gingerly sidestepping every easy interpretation of the man who takes advantage of her (and, the picture hints, maybe a little of the opposite as well), and Kristen Wiig topping even the heights of Welcome to Me and Nasty Baby with a vividly lived-in turn as a full-time mom and part-time fuck-up. But add in its gutsily frank portrait of young female sexuality, free of either judgment or hand-wringing, and this one is downright revolutionary.
There’s a terrible, terrible movie, perhaps one of the worst ever made, called The Beast of Yucca Flats, a 1961 Coleman Francis snoozer that tips off its hilariously low budget thus: because they couldn’t afford sync sound, whenever someone speaks, the camera cuts to the person who’s listening. It’s gloriously inept, resulting in conversations where the one person we don’t see is the person who’s talking, and yet I found myself thinking of this awful monster-in-the-desert movie during Todd Haynes’ romantic drama, in the two key early scenes where protagonists Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) are falling for each other. Director Haynes and editor Affonso Gonçalves don’t quite go full Yucca Flats, but they keep staying with these women as the other one is speaking, and longer, stealing glances when they don’t think the other is looking – but the camera is. Haynes’ magnificent film does many things well; it’s intelligently written sensitively acted and gorgeously photographed and its ending is perfect and Carter Burwell’s score is astonishing. But more than anything, it captures what it is to feel that first rush of infatuation, how staggering and terrifying it is, and to know that you must do something about it, no matter the consequences.
Tom McCarthy’s enthralling newspaper movie is obsessed with details: the shop-talk of an editorial meeting, the shorthand of an investigative team, the euphemisms of a diocese directory, the logistics of sealed documents and exhibit attachments. McCarthy, as others have noted with a good deal more derision than I, isn’t concerned with dazzling us with style; he’s more concerned with immersion, with putting us in those rooms next to those reporters, to better understand the thrills of their discoveries, the disappointments of their own fumbles, and the horror as they realize what they’ve unlocked, and how far out it reaches. Every performance sings, every scene punches, every payoff delivers. It’s first-class filmmaking, full stop.
Home. Few words hold as much importance, few ideas as many connotations, yet the notion of home and all that it entails is rarely dramatized, and certainly not with the elegiac feel and emotional force of John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel. The plotting isn’t overly complicated: a young woman emigrates from Ireland to New York, begins to make her way, finds herself called back home after a tragedy, and must reappraise who she is and what she wants her life to be. But it’s a film that lives in the poignant immediacy of its moments; star Saoirse Ronan’s tremendous, open performance lets you in to the pain of this young woman’s transition, the relief of that pain’s evaporation, and the confusion of what follows. No film this year made me feel more a part of a journey, or more happiness for a character finding her way to the end of it – and the beginning of her next one.
RUNNERS-UP: Aside from the titles mentioned here and here, just missing the cut were 45 Years, Amy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence, Boulevard, Going Clear, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Man Up, Manos Sucias, Phoenix, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Shaun the Sheep Movie.
HONORABLE MENTION: Also worth noting: ’71, 6 Years, 99 Homes, Among the Believers, Appropriate Behavior, Ayanda, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Chi-Raq, Cymbeline, Democrats, Felt, The Forbidden Room, Heaven Knows What, Hot Girls Wanted, In Jackson Heights, Inside Out, It Follows, James White, Junun, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Love & Mercy, Macbeth, Manglehorn, Mississippi Grind, Mustang, The New Girlfriend, Out of My Hand, Queen of Earth, Spy, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Stray Dog, Welcome to Me, The Wonders, and What We Do in the Shadows .